Cowpoke?s Mirage

Pioneertown is no home on the range

| November/December 1999

It's midnight in the Mojave, the land on both sides of the highway all mooned up and flat. I'm doing 90 past exits with B Western names like Roy Rogers Way and Rawhide Road, closing in on Pioneertown, and I'm getting that spiritual feeling that hits my lower chest every time the humidity dips to zero, the horizon depopulates and widens, and I start to catch the dusty-rain scent of chaparral--all pure conjurers of my Arizona childhood. The American desert has always been for me both mother tongue and foreign language; it's an impenetrable other, but also an inextricable part of my makeup. Being out in it disquiets but also focuses me, and brings me back to my senses. I need time with the desert like some people need time with a shrink. I want to stop right now, jump out of my car, and run into the acid moonlight, but I've got a date with Gene Autry's ghost at the Pioneertown Motel. I keep driving.

I live in San Francisco now, so I'm always looking for an excuse to go into the desert, to work on my personal research project: figuring out how and why people project their fantasies and fears onto this inhospitable landscape. That's why Pioneertown, a faux Wild West town constructed in the 1940s by entrepreneurial cowboy actors and extras from Hollywood, became a blinking red dot on my road map the minute I heard about it from a bemused friend. Pioneertown was meant to be more than a set for TV shows; its utopian founders, who probably believed that these movies would be made forever, imagined a place where bit players, seamstresses, set dressers, wranglers, electricians, and carpenters could live year-round.

And from 1946 through the mid-1950s, this scheme actually worked. Depending on the show being

filmed there, Pioneertown became Rattlesnake, Laredo, San Lorenzo, Silver City, Satan's Cradle, Nugget. It even turned into a magnet for folks who weren't necessarily associated with the business: During the boom years, for example, two Chinese guys who loved cowboy pictures--a Mr. Jew and a Mr. Gee--moved to Pioneertown from the East Coast to run the Golden Stallion Restaurant and Saloon. It was written into their lease that they had to make themselves scarce when an interior needed to be shot, but they didn't mind, since they made good money feeding the cast and crew. From its inception, Pioneertown (population now 500, according to the sign at the entrance) was both a real working town and a desert mirage.

I have a hard time finding the motel. There are, of course, no lights. Nor is there a gas station, a Denny's, or an all-night convenience store where I can ask directions.

After driving up and down the only paved road, I turn onto dirt and find myself on Mane Street, where Gene Autry filmed parts of The Gene Autry Show from 1950 to 1955 and where Annie Oakley, as played by Gail Davis, raced Target. Mane, on which the Cisco Kid fell in love with the beautiful saloon gal Lil. The moon and my headlights illuminate the faux frontier buildings, which are low to the ground, wooden, and--apparently--inhabited. There are lights on in some of them.

I locate the Pioneertown Motel, finally, at the end of Mane; it's across from Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, and dark as hell. I'm a little scared, because it looks like I am the only guest, and it happens to be the opening night of Gus Van Sant's questionable remake of Psycho--the radio has been yammering about lonely motels and psychotics for the past 10 hours. I wish I had a gun. A note and a key are tacked to the manager's door: Ernie had gone to bed, but 'Club 9' is made up and waiting. (I'd requested room 9 after reading, in a Pioneertown brochure, that after a hard day of shooting, Gene Autry had used it for poker parties.) Using the hitching rail that runs the length of the motel to keep my balance, I race down the noisy wood-plank sidewalk to my room, where, instead of the cowboy memorabilia I'd imagined, I get posters of flowers, paintings of flowers, and ceramic plates painted with floral arrangements.

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